A few days after the Women’s marches, I woke up thinking about #BlackLivesMatter. If Black lives Really mattered (equal to White lives), there’d be no need for the slogan. Unfortunately some groups get treated far differently (worse I mean) by those in power, thereby giving lie to the alternative fact of a post-racial America.
I admit my initial reaction was that all lives matter. And they do. But as I broke down the various constituencies — Black, Latino, Muslim, Native American, Disabled, Immigrant, LGBTQ, Children, Women, etc etc — I could see the particulars of how specific groups of people’s lives don’t matter to those wielding power, a view that is entirely lost when focusing on #AllLivesMatter.
I watched how the un-armed, prayerful Native Americans and their supporters at Standing Rock a few months ago were shot at with tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons in freezing weather, how they were mauled by attack dogs, and blasted with sound waves. How that compared to the mild, patient, negotiatory treatment of the armed White men who took over and occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon a few months earlier. How the White man who killed 9 people in cold blood — for explicitly-stated racist reasons — after he’d sat in a Charleston church bible study group with them was later captured and handled with kid gloves. 180 degrees different than the way videos of black people being stopped for driving infractions or other misdemeanors by the police have been handled.
Last week one of my women’s groups discussed an article written prior to the January 21st Women’s Marches. The article revealed some key conflicts involved in the organizing process. It was both heartening and dis-heartening. This is difficult work; the specifics of the difficulty are revealing, require us to be willing to meet complexity, hold compassion and perspective. From the article,
“…this is precisely why the Women’s March feels vital. Of course it’s difficult to pull together an enormous group of women who may have nothing in common other than the conviction that a country led by Trump endangers their own freedoms and the freedoms of those they love.”
While the March had originally been conceived by two White women, women of color immediately joined force. Despite considerable challenges, the result was a magnificent, inclusive, joyful expression of resistance created by millions across America and around the world. A minor note of discord for me was that along the March route, in counterpoint to the inclusive and kind spirit of the day, I noticed a small handful of signs questioning whether White people showing up for the March would also show up for #BlackLivesMatter.
I support #BlackLivesMatter. I want White people to show up for it. Still — on an Amygdala level — I felt reactive to these signs. I know I tend to be “sensitive”. I know this kind of sign is no big deal in the scheme of things. Still, if someone like me who gets the issues and supports #BlackLivesMatter had an Amygdala reaction on seeing the signs, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one. How we reach out to people matters. I have heard people say we should reach out to Trump supporters not with disdain, but with empathy and interest, that we should welcome rather than shame those not yet at the table, across whichever divide.
That said, all I feel like doing these days is writing “Shame, Shame, Shame” on my Facebook wall. Shame on the President and his Cabinet, Shame on the Republican party, Shame on a large part of the Democratic Party, shame on Trump supporters. I have few feelings in the direction of welcome. I confess. I understand fully the impulse toward othering and shaming. I tell you this NOT to say follow me down this path, nor to invite your observation that I contradict myself. Do NOT follow me down this path. Yes. I know I contradict myself. Sometimes that is the best a person can do. I am scared and angry. Two sure fire emotions that trigger the Amygdala. We’ve really gotten our American selves into it this time. I am working on doing better. It’s a process.
A few days later I heard a Charlie Rose interview with Jon Stewart. Jon talked about how people are — by nature and history — tribal, that the “American experiment” of a diverse and equal nation is new, and good. But New! Not really how we’re wired. I thought, Damn! Jon is speaking truth. We have to remember this when the going gets difficult (ie Now), understand tribalism and how the Amygdala works. Refrain from fanning the flames of othering and shame. (I am writing this for myself as much as for anyone else).
I recalled my experiences in the 60s and 70s — how the Stalinists hated the Trotskyists, and vice versa, this group split from that, etc etc. and wherever and whenever possible, if there was a line to be drawn in the sand to claim morally superior ground, someone would. We split a hundred ways to Sunday. Nobody could do political correctness, could do othering of someone standing minuscule degrees to one’s right OR left like the Left. I hated it. Then. and Now.
Marge Piercy’s poetry, which felt so relevant in the ‘70s, feels relevant again.
“… We lusted after brave loud crashing rhetoric
and threw small gains away because they made no show.
We clashed on each other, we chopped, we never hit harder
than when we were axing a comrade two feet to the right.
Factions charred our energies. Repression ground us….”
~ excerpt from Marge Piercy’s poem Eight of Swords
Still. It is where WE, the human species evolved from. Tribes. Our brains, though they now have shiny new pre-frontal cortices there to help us respond more appropriately to complex thought and feeling are still equipped with the little bit of brain tissue called the Amygdala that got us through the early years. As Jon Kabat-Zinn used to teach in stress reduction classes, and I paraphrase here…
We are the descendants of those who were hyper-vigilant, who quickly recognized and reacted against the other. The calm ones, the easy-going ones, perhaps the more gracious ones — they weren’t our ancestors; they were dinner.
Survival was high stakes back then. Fight or flight. You eat dinner, or get eaten. The tribe (that small group of people who looked and behaved exactly like you) was crucial. You had to be able to identify the other, quickly!
We talk about the Amygdala all the time now because most of us suffer multiple Amygdala attacks a day, with nothing to fight or run from (ie a bear), so, with no emergency response possible (at work, in your car, in front of the evening news) all the emergency or stress hormones continue to pulse un-abated through our bodies. This creates mental and physical havoc and becomes the basis for debilitating anxiety, sleeplessness, and physical, emotional, and social dysfunction. I know whereof I speak. I have been the stress reduction teacher and I have been the afflicted.
The idea of the American experiment is a wonderful one, where a person’s value to the community is not based on race, religion, or creed, not based on ability or disability. Instead it’s based on welcoming long persecuted and oppressed groups into the abundance of America. All of America reaps the reward of diversity, the richness of a variety of cultures. This is the idea.
It is said that when Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western Civilization he responded, “It would be a good idea”. Just so, America.
In reality, one can see present-day effects of our country’s long history of cruelty, genocide, and discrimination against Native American, African-American, Latin American, and other peoples.
Prior to nation-states, we all belonged to tribes. At least our ancestors did. But in modern day America, many of us are hard-pressed to identify the tribe we belong to.
After noticing my discomfort with the signs at the Women’s March, I had to ask myself why? What tribe, if any, do I feel part of? The answer to why is easy. Because I know I am seen as White. I understand the judgement (and the reason for it) that goes with that. Still, it doesn’t feel good to feel the target. The answer to what “tribe” I feel part of is more elusive. Partly because of the breakdown of community in modern America.
There is family of course, though we are small and separated by hundreds or thousands of miles. There is Judaism; there is Buddhism. There are my older women’s groups (3 of them I facilitate) which feel similar to a tribe in that our ages, where we live, values and concerns are generally similar. Also that we spend time together on a regular basis, sharing our thoughts and activities . I also feel connected to the women writers I have met over the years in a way that feels tribal. Maybe it is the so-called confessional nature of memoir-writing, the vulnerability and honesty involved in sharing real life (weirder, more awesome than fiction) that creates a bond.
There was one year I attempted attending a synagogue (when I was 40). The Rabbi, Alan Lew, had earlier been a Zen priest at the SF Zen Center. Half his sermons were pure dharma (inclusive) and the other half were pure tribal(exclusive, chosen). It was the tribal sermons that led me to flee from what I’d hoped would be a community for me.
Not having a strong tribe of my own I think contributes to my feeling anxious. The Amygdala doesn’t like it. Instead of tribe, I think about this in terms of community. I’m always trying with mixed degrees of success to create community.
Maybe we have a big melting pot in America. But as a nation the melting is far from complete. Many of us have no or little sense of belonging to tribe or community. This leaves us easily activated by our persistently hyper-vigilant, righteously DNA-inherited Amygdala. But the tiger or bear is no longer at the door. Instead it’s the other. The erratic driver, the difficult co-worker or boss, bureaucracies, the news, people that seem different, etc. Most of our Amygdala’s efforts are futile at best. Harmful of self and other at worst. The Amygdala is much more useful when confronting a bear or tiger; not so useful in social or political situations. When we shoot, it is likely to be a young black man or our own foot receiving the bullet.
Now, with the Predator-Liar-Misogynist-Racist-Xenophobe-in-Chief actually in office, I’m noticing people sensing and acting upon what unites us, instead of what divides us. Basic human rights (including women’s rights), Civil rights, speaking truth, kindness, and compassion. May we all keep growing in our ability to see clearly, understand deeply, and unite. It is a truly beautiful thing to see people become courageous and realize that every voice is important.
As Rumi said, Don’t go back to sleep. It would be hard with the Alarm Clock-in-Chief, a human alarm clock, going off 24/7. It’s such an ugly, loud, and persistent noise, it’s hard to sleep at all. My Amygdala is on over-drive. It feels like there’s a lot of Emergency here. Sometimes I have to turn off my radio or laptop and get out in nature to calm it down. Writing also helps. Rest, replenish, and then unite. Gonna be a long haul. Let’s be kind.